transcript of “I Want More Feedback” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 18)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “I Want More Feedback”.

Alison: Our guest this week is in a position some people might find enviable. She never hears any critical feedback from her boss – but she wants to, which is a really smart thing for reasons we’ll talk about and we’ll also talk about what she can do about it.

Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi! Thanks for having me.

Alison: Why don’t you start by reading the letter that you sent to me and then we’ll talk about it?

Guest: Perfect. I’ve been in a department head role that I enjoy and suits me well for about a year and a half. I took a somewhat lateral move to join the company for this job after being pretty aggressively recruited as part of their so-called corporate succession planning. The idea is that I’ll eventually replaced my boss who’s a member of the C-suite and in his mid-fifties or so. The good news is that it’s going great. I’m getting tons of good feedback, lots of autonomy, and I have a good relationship with my boss, team, and coworkers. In the first several months after joining, he twice made comments along the lines of how he sees me someday succeeding him if I remain interested in doing so, and that everything was going well. Great!

My issue is: I never really get any negative feedback. I know it sounds like a great problem to have, except that no one is perfect, and I’m not some mystical unicorn that somehow is! I’m also self-aware enough to know there’s a lot, especially industry related, that I don’t know in depth yet and I want to improve on. While I’m quite happy in my role now and not looking to advance or move for a couple of years, I also want to be strengthening my future possible candidacy for his role. I have had official development meetings as well as ad hoc feedback on projects and reports. There’s just never any feedback to change anything I’m doing. I hesitate to provide too much specificity in naming what I think are my deficiencies, because it feels like self-sabotage if he hasn’t noticed them, but I want to know how he and the other executives see my weaknesses. Can you help me articulate the right wording to basically say, “Hey, tell me what you think I’m bad at!” My thought was a script along the lines of: “I’m glad to hear everything is going well, but do you see any areas that I should be focusing on developmentally that may otherwise prevent me from advancing?” What are your thoughts?

Alison: Well, I think you’re so smart to be thinking about this. I think so often people in this situation feel like, “Great! They say everything is going well, so that’s that.” And while it can be tempting to do that, it does put you in a position where you’re 100 percent responsible for your own professional growth and you’re forfeiting the benefit that getting outside feedback can provide. I think, too, sometimes people think of feedback as being “these are the things you’re doing wrong,” where in actuality I think feedback can be “you’re doing great and here are the areas you could focus on to do even better in, and here’s how you might do that.” So I think it’s really smart.

First let me ask you this. Have you tried bringing this up at all yet or will this be the first time that you’re raising it?

Guest: In past development sessions – we had a six-month and a one-year formal sit down – in those, after he gave me the positive feedback and like most companies we have the different values and traits that we get assessed on, they were all basically positive. I tried to ask questions around like, “Okay, great. Is there anything specific you want me to see changing or that you would want me to do more or less of?” And the answer has always just been something like either “Not really,” or “Hey, maybe in the long term we’ll get you more involved in another part of the business,” which is great but not really actionable for me.

Alison: Yeah. The wording that you suggested initially, I think I want to just tweak it a little bit. You had suggested, “Do you see any areas that I should be focusing on that could otherwise prevent me from advancing?” The only thing I don’t love about that framing is that it’s going to be pretty easy for your boss to just say, “No, everything’s great.” And it’s not that your boss would do that because he’s lazy or because he doesn’t want to be bothered – I mean maybe – but many bosses just aren’t that good at giving really thoughtful feedback. Or they know when something is going wrong, but they’re not as skilled at articulating ways in which things could go from very good to great. Or they see small things that you could improve on, but they figure that since you’re performing really well overall it’s not worth it to get into more minor criticisms, not realizing that you’d actually like to hear those.

Guest: Yeah, and that’s what I’m worried about. I know that he’s overall happy with my performance, but I’m sure there’s something – like, “Okay, overall that was great, but it was annoying that you blank.” I don’t know what those little blanks are.

Alison: I think the trick is to frame it in a way that a) makes it really clear that you actively want to hear this stuff, because not everyone does, and as a boss it’s so nice to run into someone who really welcomes it, and then b) to frame it in a way that really draws it out of him and makes it easy for him. I think you could say something like, “I really value feedback about my work and what I could do better. Would you be willing to share your thoughts on ways that I could be more effective?” It’s possible that that kind of framing, starting out by explicitly stating that this is something that’s very important to you, that that could help. But if you still get “Oh, everything’s fine,” then I think you can almost force it. You can say, “If I were going to pick one thing to work on improving in, what would you like to see me focus on?” It’s almost like when I’m checking references on a job candidate and people only want to say positive things, and you’ve got to find sneaky ways to pull the less flattering things out of them. It’s almost a version of that. Do you think that could work?

Guest: I think it could. I like that framing. A little off-topic, but you were talking about reference checking. When I interviewed, one of my questions is always, “What do you love about this company? And then if you had a magic wand to change it, what is something you would change?” Because otherwise people never have anything bad to say.

Alison: Right!

Guest: I think that would probably be a good thing. I also think my boss, just knowing him, he likes to have an answer. So if his answer can’t be yes or no, I think for him specifically, that might be a good tactic.

Alison: Yeah, don’t make it a yes or no question. Make him come up with something. That’s so funny though about the magic wand thing, because I actually sometimes use a version of that when I am the reference checker. I’ve said, “If you could wave a magic wand over this person’s head, what would you change?” For some reason, people are willing to answer that more candidly than they are other versions of it.

Guest: Yeah, I don’t really get it, but if it works then I’m fine with it (laughs).

Alison: Yeah, I think it’s that in lots of different contexts, people don’t want to seem like they’re volunteering something negative, especially if they genuinely think the person is great, but when you frame it that way, it kind of takes the pressure off, I think.

Guest: That’s true, yeah. And then it doesn’t feel like it even necessarily has to be a huge deal.

Alison: Yes, exactly.

Guest: You can really like something, but still want to tweak it a little bit.

Alison: If you do this and your manager still seems to struggle to come up with anything useful, there’s another way that you can try to get at this, which is to get very, very specific and ask for feedback on specific concrete pieces of work. Like, you could ask to debrief a recent project. You could say, “Hey, could we talk through how X went and what we could have done differently to get better results?” Or you can say, “Hey, when I do X, I’m not sure if I’m approaching it in the most effective way. Could I run through for you what I’m doing and get your input on where I could strengthen it?” And then it’s almost like asking for advice as opposed to feedback, which can make it feel lower pressure.

Guest: No, that’s actually a good thought too. We just got through our big busy season kind of wrapped up at the end of May, so we went through all these big projects and big presentations up to our corporate headquarters and all that. So, I think that’ll just be good kind of leverage point that I’ll be able to use. If I don’t get anything on the first piece, I can say, “Well, let’s talk about what we just went through.” Just a different tactic to do it.

Alison: And that can make it a lot easier. I don’t know, some people are really bad at giving feedback, which is crazy because it’s one of the most important things that managers should be doing. But especially when you have someone who is doing a good job overall, for some managers it’s just not a skill they’ve really developed, and these are good ways to draw it out of him. One other thing too, you had mentioned that you have a sense of what you think your weaker spots are. You could ask about those specifically. I definitely hear you on not wanting to point them out to him if he hasn’t noticed them, but if you feel like you’re weak on, I don’t know, giving presentations to clients, you could say something like, “I’d really like to get better at presenting to clients. I feel like I’ve been losing their attention partway through and you’ve been in on some of my presentations. I’d love your advice on what I might be able to work on.” So just name the thing, whatever it is, and ask for input on it.

Guest: Yeah, that’s a good idea too. And then I think the other thing on that is, I know sometimes you can be your harshest critic, so it’d be a nice kind of way to pulse him a little bit on if he’s seeing the same. And knowing his personality, I think that if I brought up something first, he wouldn’t feel bad about being like, “Oh yeah, let’s talk about that.”

Alison: Perfect.

Have you ever managed people, have you been on his side of it?

Guest: Yeah, I do.

Alison: So, you know how unpleasant it can be to give feedback to someone who isn’t great at taking it, someone who gets defensive or just shuts down or seems really displeased. It sucks to have that conversation. So really demonstrating that you are not that person, that you are up for this conversation and you’re excited to have it and you’re not going to be weird about it, can go a long way.

Guest: No, that’s a really good point too. I was thinking back, I had someone who worked for me in a previous role and they were very good, but she did not like getting any negative feedback. It would be one of those things that were like: “You did 19 things that were awesome, work on this 20th thing,” and she did not enjoy that. And I fought the impulse always, but there was always that impulse coming into it that you’re like, “I just don’t even want to tell her the 20th thing, she’s doing 19 things great, I don’t want to get into it.” And if she had asked me, it would have just made the whole thing easier and more pleasant.

Alison: Yes! I always say this to people who write in to Ask a Manager and say that they bristle at feedback and they get defensive about it or they get upset, but if you have that reaction, your manager is human and there’s a pretty good chance that her reaction to that is going to be that she’s going to become reluctant to give you feedback except when it’s so egregious that she has to say something. And that’s so bad for you. It’s so bad for your professional growth and for your reputation and for your raises and promotions. You want to hear that stuff. I mean, apparently people don’t want to hear it, but they should want to hear it for those reasons.

Guest: Yeah, exactly. What I’m worried about – and I’m probably five to ten years away from this – but I don’t want my boss to retire in ten years and then find out, “Well you know, you never really developed good relationships with corporate or something and so you’re not getting the job,” when I could have been told ten years earlier.

Alison: Exactly. That’s exactly it. You have such a good attitude about feedback. We have to make your boss realize that you do and hopefully that’ll help.

Guest: Well, I will try.

Alison: If you do all of this and you’re still not getting very useful feedback – because some managers are just terrible at it – there’s this other option potentially that you could seek it from other people. I mean, it depends on who you work with and if you respect them, but if you work with someone who is good in areas where you sense you may be weaker, you might be able to seek out almost like informal mentoring from that person. And it doesn’t have to be a big formally structured thing. It can be, “Hey, you’re really great at X and it’s an area I want to get better in. Could I ask for your advice?”

Guest: Yeah, that’s a good thought as well. I work in a company where my branch is not huge, it’s about 70 people. So the people that I work with I tend to work with relatively closely so I think that would be an option. Also, I have a fairly good working relationship with, we have a HR head of organizational development. I was thinking of just asking him too, more in like a macro sense, “Hey, it’s been a year and a half, how do you think I’m fitting in? Do you have any feedback for me?” Just kind of informally touching base with him as well.

Alison: Yeah, that’s a great idea. I think the more you can form connections with people around you, particularly people who are senior to you or maybe just a little bit senior to you. People love to be asked for advice and input and what their thoughts are – well, most people – so I think beyond your boss there’s potentially a lot of other opportunities for it as well.

Guest: I’ll try to do that as well. One question I have on this, if I want to do this, I was kind of planning to put it on his calendar as a, “Hey, I want to talk about this next week” to give him time to think it over – or does that make it too much of an event that we’re going to have?

Alison: It might. For a lot of managers it would. I think it depends on what you know about him. Potentially, it makes him feel like, “Oh, this is this big thing. And I don’t know exactly what it is that she’s looking for, and I feel like I told her everything was going fine.” So, I might just talk to him about it more casually. When you happen to be meeting with him and there’s a natural opening, I might say, “Hey, this is something I’ve been thinking about. I would love to pick your brain on this. Can I put some time on your calendar to set aside to do this?” So that you’re able to give him some context as opposed to this thing just popping up on his calendar.

Guest: No, that makes sense. We have an informal touch-base every two weeks already on the calendar, so I guess I’ll just bring it up then and say, “Hey, can I put something on the calendar this week? You know, talk it through?”

Alison: Yeah, I think that’s good. I think that’ll make it – not that you should have to worry about taking the pressure off your manager for something that really is part of the manager’s job — ut I think that’s probably a more effective way to approach it.

Guest: Okay, perfect.

Alison: Good. So, what do you think? Does this all feel like stuff that you can do and that might work?

Guest: It does. I think it’s really good to have the right framing and how to ask the question where it’s open ended and so he can’t necessarily just say, “No, you’re great.” Or if he does, there’s ways to follow up and be like, “Okay, but how about X, Y, and Z? What do you think about that?” I think that’ll be good. And despite the fact that he hasn’t given me any good constructive feedback yet, I do think that’s something he values. So, I’m relatively optimistic that if I can kind of open the conversation in the right way, he will be happy to provide. I just don’t know that he thinks that he has to yet, for lack of a better explanation.

Alison: That makes a lot of sense, and I think that’s really common. But yeah, if you just are very explicit about the fact that you really want this and then you corner him into having to answer some questions (laughs), I think you’ll hopefully get what you’re looking for.

Guest: Perfect. I’m excited.

Alison: Yay! Well, thank you so much for coming on and talking this through. This has been great.

Guest: Thank you for having me.

Alison: Before we end the show, I want to say a little more to people listening about feedback. First, if you are a manager, you’re almost certainly not giving your staff members enough feedback, because most managers don’t. Sometimes managers err too much on one side or the other – they’ll give plenty of positive feedback, but they’re reluctant to talk about things that people could be doing better usually because they feel uncomfortable having what they fear will be an awkward conversation. Or they give a lot of criticism but very little positive feedback, which sucks. It leaves the people working for them feeling like the good things they’re doing are totally unnoticed and unappreciated and it’s terrible for people’s morale. Over time, it will make people less invested in their jobs.

So, managers, resolve to give more feedback and make sure that you are getting the balance right between positive and more critical input. And for everyone, not just managers, if you find yourself getting defensive when you get critical feedback or shutting down or otherwise having difficulty with it, it really does help to shift your mental framing to one where you truly see critical feedback as something that will help you in your career. And even if you disagree with the feedback, it’s still useful to learn what your manager’s perspective is so that you can figure out where that’s coming from and if it’s something you have to address. It’s not that getting critical feedback is never annoying, because sometimes it is, but really hearing it and taking it in can be crucial to growing professionally and doing better work and building a better relationship with your boss and those are things that make your life easier and that is a good thing. If anyone out there does get defensive when getting feedback and wants to talk through how to change that, write into the show at, and we may be able to bring you on and delve into what’s going on and how you can change it.

Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675.

You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.